Aamer Rahman, a Bangladeshi-Australian comedian, has a clever way of addressing the subject of race and privilege. In his comedy routines, he tends to target white majority power structures. He is often accused of “reverse racism.”
In one particular stand-up, he addressed this. He explained, with characteristic sarcasm, what he thinks would qualify as reverse racism. He said he would need a time machine to go back in time to before Europe colonized the world. He would have to go invade and steal the land of white Europeans, set up a white slave trade, set up societies that privilege black and brown people at every social, economic and political level, subject white people to black and brown people’s standards of beauty, etc. Then, he said, if after thousands of years of that, he got on stage and took cuts at white people, that would be reverse racism.
What Rahman is pointing out here is how we so often treat differing groups as if they’re on a level playing field without any reference to context, history, or the dynamics of power. Those of us in the white majority often operate with the myth of “all things equal,” the idea that we all share an equal playing field with equal expectations. In this mythical equal space, a person of color critiquing a white majority that has used its power to oppress people of color for centuries is the same as a white person making jokes about a person of color.
This myth is a very pervasive one that is quite useful to majority populations because it helps them hold onto power. It’s a dirty trick that many unsuspectingly play along with. It is persuasive because it sounds impartial and fair-minded. What it actually does, however, is further marginalize and victimize those who don’t have the same power or influence.
One of its most common manifestations is when people who grew up in healthy, nurturing environments look at someone who was born into poverty and tell them to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. It’s a double fallacy: not only does the more fortunate person mistakenly believe they are self-made, but it also assumes that the person in poverty has the same big bootstraps. Even though poverty and its disastrous effects have been thoroughly researched, the myth of all things equal between socio-economic classes persists.
In a just world, individuals and groups with a higher level of power and influence would be held to higher standards. In fact, it’s often just the opposite. People who have less power, less of an advantage, or a less privileged upbringing are expected to bear a weight that not even their more powerful and privileged counterparts are asked to bear.
We hold black kids to higher expectations of knowledge, responsibility, and judgment than police officers with a badge and a gun. We hold refugees and immigrants to a higher standard of knowledge, honesty, and sometimes vetting than the people we elect to public office. We hold the poor to a tougher work ethic than people who inherited their wealth. I’m reminded of Jesus’ critique of some of the leaders of his day in Matthew 23:4: “They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.” (NIV)
We hold black kids to higher expectations of knowledge, responsibility, and judgment than police officers with a badge and a gun. We hold refugees and immigrants to a higher standard of knowledge, honesty, and sometimes vetting than the people we elect to public office.
When there are mass protests about a certain injustice, media outlets who would rather keep the status quo use their access and influence to cast the protesters as “angry mobs,” often using the worst of the bunch to discredit the entire movement. This tactic seems most often used with communities of color, and was out in full force at the start of the Black Lives Matter movement.
One of 2018’s most watched and debated controversies was also one that put this myth of equal footing on full display. During the hearings for Justice Brett Kavanaugh and his accuser Christine Blasey Ford, the conduct, memory, and reputation of Ford — a vulnerable, private citizen who has already had to move 4 times because of threats and harassment — were held to even higher standards than Kavanaugh, a sitting judge with the backing of many powerful special interests. Many female victims of sexual assault know this dynamic all too well. The woman is hyper-scrutinized while the man is given the benefit of the doubt.
A second but related trick used in this case was the suggestion that false accusations against men are just as common or likely as true ones. Men and parents of boys immediately spoke as if they were under threat of a false accusation being leveled against them at any time. False accusations against men happen, and are horrible for the accused when they do, but they are statistically extremely rare, while harassment and assault of women is horrifically common. As Cornell philosophy professor Kate Manne points out in her book Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny, treating them as equally likely places further stress on the more vulnerable and elevates those in power even further.
As we come to this year’s Black History Month, it’s important to remember this dynamic. Every year, some white citizens flippantly wonder why there is even such a thing and, with varying levels of subtlety, suggest that this is evidence of special treatment for black people that white people do not get. This is, again, the myth of all things equal. Instead of complaining about a special history month, just be glad you don’t need one. We need it because the accomplishments of the black community were repressed for so long. We need it because so much of our history was written by the slave master. We need it because there are still those in the halls of Congress who wonder out loud when white supremacy became offensive.
Disenfranchisement is not an accident. The sooner we admit that and leave room for the voice and leadership of minority populations, the better. Women and minorities remain underrepresented in the highest leadership positions at virtually every level of church and society. We must continue trends like what happened this past November where a historic number of women were elected to Congress, including the first ever Native American women. Studies have even shown that societies improve when women and minorities lead. Churches do too. Let’s get on that train.
The Rev. Corey Fields is senior pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, Newark, Del.